Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

SH-in-Washington-movie-posterHolmes and Watson leave the semi-Victorian comforts of Baker Street far behind and head off to 1940s America in search of a microfilm hidden inside a matchbook and which ends up doing the rounds of Washington’s high and low society as our heroes try to beat enemy agents to the prize. George Zucco, who played Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) returns, albeit as a different villain, while the script was co-written by Bertram Millhauser, who would become a major contributor to the Universal series.

The following is offered for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at his fab Sweet Freedom blog.

Universal Sherlock Holmes # 3
Conan Doyle Source: not canonical
Sample dialogue: “I shall write a monograph someday on the noxious habit of accumulating useless trivia”
Original filming dates: Started filming on 8 July 1942

This was the third, last and least of the entries in the series of Holmes and Watson adventures starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce made for Universal Studios that sought to re-imagine the original stories as World War 2 tales of anti-Nazi espionage and derring-do. The war would get a mention now and then but in the next nine films the emphasis instead would be on a more Gothic style, divorced from everyday realities, retreating instead into a rich and fascinating ersatz Victorian universe only vaguely set in the 1940s.

Dr. John H. Watson: “It’s clear as mud to me.”

The original working title was Sherlock Holmes in U.S.A. though it takes a good 25 minutes before the great detective and the good doctor make it across the Atlantic. They first stop at the home of a missing British agent (mild-mannered Gerald Hamer as the unassuming Alfred Pettibone), which has already been infiltrated by enemy agents, realising that he has secreted the all important documents as a microfilm in a book of ‘V for Victory’ matches. When they do make it to Washington we get one of the most macabre scenes in the series, when a packing case is sent to Holmes’ hotel – and inside is the dead body of the man they were looking for.


Comedy is supplied in the form of Watson’s reactions to American culture as he sucks on milk shakes, chews gum, reads comics and tries to pick up local slang (with predictably maladroit results). The film provides a good role for Clarence Muse as the train porter who helps Holmes reconstruct just how Pettibone passed on the all-important matchbook to the newly engaged society gal played by Marjorie Lord, who makes for a spunky leading lady. Henry Daniell, who played a politician in Voice of Terror and would go on to play Moriarty in The Woman in Green (1945), is here one of the henchmen working for George Zucco, an art dealer who turns out to be Nazi sleeper agent Heinrich Hinckel. It is one of the amusing if very daft elements of the plot that it imagines that a German enemy agent from the first world war would still be employed by the Nazis decades after what might be politely termed something of a ‘change of management’ back in the Fatherland.


The standout sequence is a party scenes among Washington’s high society in which the matchbook keeps getting passed from person to person, all of them unaware that the Nazis are right there trying to steal it. The climax, in the art shop (with Holmes initially trying to pass himself as a rather prissy expert) is a bit of a damp squib and is definitely over-extended, as are the tourist scenes which are made up of Rathbone and Bruce in front of a process screen looking at stock footage various monuments.


There is compensation to be found in the shape of a good cast and some amusing jokes, but this is never the less a rather sluggish entry, one which fails to really capitalise on the changed surroundings and which has far too simple a plot. It would in fact be the last entry set int he US, though one of the best of the subsequent titles in the series (The Scarlet Claw) would see the duo travelling to Canada. Things would definitely pick up nicely with the next film in the series, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943).

For my dedicated microsite on the Universal Sherlock Holmes series, click here.

DVD Availability: Available in terrific editions on DVD and Blu-ray the world over, derived from the restorations made by UCLA. All look decent – some, such as Sherlock Holmes in Washington, look absolutely terrific.

Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)
Director: Roy William Neill
Producer: Howard Benedict
Screenplay: Bertram Millhauser, Lynn Riggs
Cinematography: Lester White
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes), Nigel Bruce (Dr Watson), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hudson), Marjorie Lord, Henry Daniell, George Zucco, Gerald Hamer, Clarence Muse, Ian Wolfe

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Arthur Conan Doyle, London, Sherlock Holmes, Tuesday's Overlooked Film, Washington DC and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943)

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    As always, Sergio, I appreciate your candor. I have to admit, I’m a cranky, fussy purist. I really prefer the Holmes stories to be told as Conan Doyle wrote them. But even admitting my own strong bias, this certainly doesn’t sound like the best of the bunch. It’s a shame, too, because it does sound as though there was some potential.

    • I know what you mean and this one, having nothing to do with Doyle, does suffer I feel, though I have no problrm with pastiches – my favourite Holmes film ever, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, being a prime example of non-canonical fidelity!

  2. Bradstreet says:

    I love all of the Rathbone movies, but there’s no denying that this is a bit of a curate’s egg. I understand that there was a suggestion in the studio that the Holmes movie series should be re-set in the USA, but I suspect that SH IN WASHINGTON helped convince them that this was a bad idea. It loses all of the timeless feel of the rest of the movies.

  3. Yvette says:

    Every time I see this, Sergio – I feel bad for Alfred Pettibone so sweetly played by Gerald Hamer who, actually, went on to play the [SPOILER] in SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SCARLET CLAW set, as you say, in Canada. I like that the films had a bunch of actors who took turns playing various parts in the films. Like a little theater troupe,.

    I didn’t mind this one as much as other Holmes fans seem to do.

    • Hi Yvette – I just censored your post – sorry, but that was an outtrageous spiler you stuck in there chum 🙂 And yes, I agree, Hames is great in this and I love the use of the Universal repetory company (one of the reason I love the Nero Wolfe series with Tim Hutton as it does exactly the same thing).

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’m with Margot – I like my Holmes canon but I love Rathbone’s portrayal so much that I wish he’d had better scripts…

    • They really improve after this one Karen and, as I said to Margot, my favourite Sherlock from the big screen remains Bilyl Wilder’s sublimely romantic The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which is definitely a pastiche but a loving one

  5. Colin says:

    The passing round of the microfilm is easily the best part of the film and there is a very strong supporting cast. But there’s too much other stuff going on that doesn’t really work or at least feels flat.
    Thankfully, the following films hit the right formula exactly and settled into a very fine run. And this also represents Holmes’ last bad hair day!

    • I know, that hair is just so bloody awaful! Nothing worse than a man with hair not making the most of this (you can gues which side of the follicle challenge I fall on 🙂 – in this respect you and I are not in the same place, for once). Really looking forward to looking at the next trio of films, which probably see the series at somethign like its peak really.

  6. Colin says:

    Yes, if the series had continued in this vein, I doubt very much we’d still be talking about it today. When I think back to the childhood viewings which hooked me it’s the mi-series entries I remember. There was a bit of a dip in quality again before the end but I don’t believe it was too drastic, although it’s been a while since I watched the series all the way through.

    • The penultimate entry, set on a train (Terror in the Night), was I thought very good but as the series wore on you could see that Rathbone was getting a bit bored with the part. But I am really looking forward to re-watchign all of them (bit of a Christmas treat I suspect_.

      • Colin says:

        The darker the evening, the better I find with this kind of stuff. It’s 31 degrees outside here at midday so I can’t enjoy these kinds of films just now.

        • Two words for you – air coon 🙂 I know what you mean though and certainly it is a little bit about recapturing that after school 6PM on BBC 2 feeling from when I first fell in love with the films.

          • Colin says:

            Trust me, the air conditioning has been getting what could be termed a fairly muscular workout of late! Still, certain material works better at different times of year for me, and I can wait.

          • I understand completely – when I visitited my folks in Umbria in July to was regularly 38 degrees and darn it, even watching the telly was exhausting! Baz and Bruce are for comfy winter evenings!

  7. Mike says:

    Watched it very recently again, this time on Blu-Ray 😉 Enjoyed it, in a gleefully trashy kind of way, and the following around of the match book made for good fun. There’s a part of me that loathes Watson being played as a dope, but overall I had it down as a decent and enjoyable 6/10. I’m a real sucker for those closing patriotic speeches and I want to know where to go to get my war bonds.

    • Thanks for that Mike – aha, the Blu-ray invasion has begun – excellent my man! And yes, because there is such obvious affection between Rathbone and Bruce one wishes that it could have been played more for real as they could easily have carried it off. Ah well, that’s why we have the Jeremy Brett series with Burke and Hadwicke, truly the show that revolutionised the depiction of Watson.

      • Mike says:

        The Blu invasion has indeed begun – started a collection of Masters of Cinema titles and am hoovering the occasional bargain also. I managed to pick up the 50th anniversary edition of Spartacus last week and was stunned by the quality, truly awe-inspiring. As for the Holmes set, of course it’s wonderful to have it – I’m also enjoying how HD brings out the sheer artifice of the sets, also the weight of make-up they slapped onto the actors!

        • I know – it really is pancake, isn’t it? especially obvious with the extreme close-ups and contrasty lighting of Voice of Terror. I am very envious of Spartacus, didn’t know it was available yet – I remember seeing the Harris and Katz restoration at the Odeon Marble Arch twenty some years ago, when it was pretty much the biggest screen in London, and just being completely stunned by the look of it.

          • Mike says:

            I know Spartacus is full of great performances, but I forget until watching it again just how bloody brilliant Laurence Olivier is – completely patrician, utterly unable to get his head around the myth of Spartacus. I quite liked the gory and gratuitous TV series, mainly for those reasons, but this one’s a class above.

          • I got my brother the TV version as a Christmas present – we watched about one episode but just couldn’t get over the sheer pulpy daftness of it to be honest

          • Mike says:

            The first couple of episodes are exactly like that but it does improve. Sorry to have gone so off-topic by the way – we’re working our way steadily through the Holmeses with Friday evenings feeling just right for it. Tonight it’s the Spider Woman!

          • The Spider Woman is a real favourite here too – have a great evening!

  8. Basil Rathbone — now there’s a Sherlock Holmes I have never watched in action. It’s good to know it’s available on DVD, Sergio.

  9. John says:

    Who was Rathbone’s hair stylist for this movie? The North Wind? Wow, that’s wretched look even for someone as unworried about his appearance as Holmes. …oh… just read all the comments before hitting “Post comment”… Now I see someone already covered this. Well, I couldn’t resist. Not seen this or any of the WW2 set Holmes movies. Not sure I’m interested in them really.

    But — in a related story — two days ago I finally saw Ian McKellan as the 93 year-old Holmes in 1940s era Sussex (MR HOLMES) and I was enthralled with his performance as well as the faithful adaptation of the book A Slight Trick of the Mind (a lovely novel, BTW). In fact, I think Jeffrey Hatcher in his screenplay did improved upon the story by melding the three storylines rather seamlessly. In the book the Japanese story is slightly different as I recall and overall the three stories are presented more fragmented as it was Cullin’s intent was to evoke the heartbreak of Holmes’ slow realization of his fading intellect and failing memory.

    • Thanks for that – haven’t seen the movie yet (seem to come and go in a blink) but plan to – and yes, that blasted hairstyle in the first three movies is just a nightmare! After this it all goes back to normal, thank Medusa! The movies are great fun though – you should take the plunge chum, especially The Scarlet Claw and The Spider Woman 🙂

      • John says:

        I’ve seen both of those! THE SCARLET CLAW is reminiscent of THE LEOPARD MAN, made one year earlier. I liked those Holmes movies. I meant to say I’m not interested in Holmes vs. Nazis and working for the war effort. Just doesn’t sit right with me.

        • That makes sense – sorry John, it did seem odd that you wouldn’t have seen them! Apologies for my eternally slow wits … My inner Watson these days definitely more Bruce than Hardwicke!

  10. tracybham says:

    Every time you do a post on one of these movies, I vow to watch more of them. There is just too little time. But I will definitely put some in the queue, and look forward to more posts like this.

  11. I saw this many years ago – I was a teenager and loved it, but probably now would be more purist. I’m interested to see your praise for Private Life of SH: I saw it for first time recently and enjoyed it very much. Now I’m going to search to see if you have reviewed it here….

  12. Colin says:

    Gave this one a spin tonight, even though I professed last year to preferring the darker evenings for watching them – in my defense, the weather is positively autumnal here at the moment so it kind of fits.
    All the touristy stuff was an even bigger drag, i felt, and the patriotic speech-making felt very forced. I still like the cocktail party shenanigans and Zucco and Daniell are excellent villains. Medium grade Holmes for all that.

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